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Hospitals already facing 'enormous' financial burden during COVID-19

Even before the peak, Minnesota's hospitals are spending - and losing - money in the fight to keep up with COVID-19.

MINNEAPOLIS — Describing “enormous challenges” in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, a representative of the Minnesota Hospital Association urged state lawmakers on Thursday to expedite relief funding and loosen staffing restrictions to prepare for the inevitable surge in cases this spring.

Mary Krinkie, the vice president of government relations at MHA, said during a Zoom call with the Senate’s bipartisan COVID-19 Response Working Group that hospitals are spending major cash to build ICU capacity and stock up on much-needed personal protective equipment like masks.

Already operating on thin margins, Krinkie said these hospitals are also impacted financially by stock market volatility and, at the same time, must grapple with the crippling loss of $31 million in revenue each day after canceling elective surgeries last month.

“Hospitals are being hit with what we’re calling the quadruple-whammy,” Krinkie said. “We made that decision (to cancel elective surgeries) because we had to keep as much personal protective equipment as possible. But, this is causing enormous financial hardship for hospitals.”

Specifically, Krinkie is asking state officials to immediately release $50 million in recently-approved emergency grant funding, representing the first phase of a $200 million appropriation.

“None of that money has been spent yet. We are very anxious to get that money out the door,” Krinkie said. “The sooner we can get that money in, the sooner we can help with staffing and other expenditures.”

On a media call with local reporters on Thursday, health commissioner Jan Malcolm said that 1,200 applicants have asked for more than $250 million in the initial round of emergency grants – five times the $50 million available. Even so, Malcolm said the department is analyzing the applications and hopes to approve relief early next week.

“We are going through those right now. It certainly is our goal to get them out quickly,” Malcolm said. “That was the whole point of the legislation.”

During the COVID-19 working group call, state lawmakers voiced their own concerns about hospital viability. State Senator Scott Jensen (R-47) pressed Krinkie on MHA’s plans to help struggling rural facilities, which could be severely burdened by taking an influx of patients from the Twin Cities when the COVID-19 peak hits.

“When we get on the other side of this crisis,” Jensen said, “I think a lot of those hospitals are gonna have trouble opening their doors ever again.”

Krinkie said that MHA would consider asking legislators for a specific rural hospital aid package and that she shared Jensen’s concerns.

In addition to funding, Krinkie said hospitals need to keep their current staff healthy by bolstering stock of PPE – in addition to recruiting other health professionals to help on the front lines.

Outlining a number of requests, Krinkie said hospitals need:

  • Relaxed licensing standards to allow health care workers from other states to work in Minnesota
  • Increased use of physician assistants and possibly medical students
  • Retired nurses and doctors to help via telemedicine
  • Streamlined processes and relaxed rules to help health care providers share information with each other

Krinkie also asked the Minnesota Department of Health to issue stronger guidance for hospitals on the use of personal protective equipment. Many nurses and doctors have reported rationing PPE because of the severe shortage in supply, and they are sometimes reusing those masks, gowns, and other pieces of equipment.

Malcolm, in her press briefing, said they are listening to concerns about PPE protocol - but that the crisis may require hospitals to make their own interpretations at times.

“We’re working with them to learn, ‘what are their most pressing questions? And what’s the best advice we can give them?’” Malcolm said. “Just working as closely with providers as we can to give them the best support and guidance.”

Although the PPE shortage has been well-documented, it has been difficult for the public to gauge the true extent of the problem without hard data. That may change on Friday: Gov. Tim Walz said that the state expects to release a dashboard of PPE numbers, which will provide Minnesotans their first look at data related to the shortage.

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The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.